John Harris, "Mark E Moan" p32-3
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, April 3, 1993, pp. 32-33
He's back with his annual State of the Nation address, and the nation recoils in shame and terror. Nothing and no-one is spared from Mark E Smith's relentless onslaught of warped wisdom - Nirvana, the government, Denim, John Major, Belly, the government, The Orb, his old record company ...JOHN HARRIS hunkers down in Smith's last refuge, the pub, and takes it like a man. Fall guy: KEVIN CUMMINS
Question: what's the difference a loony and an eccentric!
Mark E Smith lurches into the foyer of the Notting Hill pop hotel where Kylie and Jason used to stay, giving off the quintessential northern aroma of fags and cheap altershave.
It's a sunny, decidedly summery day. Mark suggests we get some tins from a nearby off-licence and go and sit in the park. Thankfully, he soon spies a decent pub so we end up sitting in the corner, sandwiched between drink-all-day losers and portly businessmen. We talk about The Fall and Suede and the early '70s and grunge music. And the ignominy of having to deal with a record label that probably wants to get rid of you.
And that's when the question first occurs to me -- because, as is well known, Mark E Smith is not your conventional conversationalist. He's prone to flit between subjects with amazing ease, peppering discussions about a given subject with animated complaints about utterly unrelated matters. More curiously he has a tendency to spin off into paranoid monologues that exude a strange belief that The Fall are the unheralded godparents of every band who've come to light in the last ten years.
Then of course, there's the evident martyr complex which leads him to comment on current music developments as if he's returned from the trenches to find that the younger generation has betrayed him.
On occasion he comes over like the grey-haired war dog in the station waiting room, bemoaning the fact that the chocolate machine doesn't work. While loudly wondering why he ever bothered to fight the Germans in the first place.
A loony, right ?
Well, NO, actually for all his unhinged ranting Mark E Smith manages to steer clear of nutterism and conveys the strange-but-sane aura of the old-fashioned English eccentric. For starters, unlike most lunatics he's relaxingly hilarious company, leaning into the tape recorder every five minutes to deliver countless incisive witticisms.
More importantly, as we've noted a thousand times before, he's endowed with a talent that borders on -- ahem -- genius. When most of his ex-punk peers are either floundering in corporate hell or eking out a living on the pub circuit he's managed to release new records that rarely fail to make his public gasp while buildling up a fan base others would kill for.
A fortnight ago his latest EP garnered yet another NME Single Of The Week. Featuring a wondrously wayward take on an old reggae song entitled 'Why Are People Grudgeful'', a rejigged version of 1991s 'The Mixer' and a rendition of Sister Sledge's: Lost In Music, its highlight is a song that has had Fall-watchers leaping around in excited expectation for weeks. 'Glam Racket' hapless journalists have assumed is a close relative of 1989's Idiot Joy Showland, that sneering, father-knows-best song that surveyed the baggy tumult and saw only: "Idiot groups with no shape or form/ Out of their heads on a quid of blow".
Egged on by Fall associates. They've taken 'Racket' as a similarly sardonic if less pointed snipe at the new crop of early '70s enthusiasts -- not least on account of its Glitter-esque arrangement.
Hell, it even contains the word "Suede." Twice. So scene watchers have leant back on their chairs, bypassed the frequently baffling lyrics ("Stop eating all that chocolate/Eat salad instead") and drawn the battle lines (or a verbal war between Mark and his lads, and Brett Bernard, Lawrence out of Denim. Pete. Bob and Sarah and Jarvis Pulp). And...they're wrong...sort of.
"Well," Mark drawls, lighting up the first of a stream of cigarettes, "It's not really about groups at all." Yeah, right, that's why you've mentioned Suede in the lyrics.
"Ah but that's suede in the Mancunian sense. Suede shoes, suede trainers, suede jackets -- suede being da 'in' thing. Same reason it refers to shell-suits."
The words, Mark explains, are a fractured series of complaints about the United Kingdom. In 1993: the government, the con men who run the economy, the record company who threatened to cut his income by one third (more of that later), people who read Viz... all kinds of targets come in for a lashing at the hand of someone whose weirdly-worded State Of The Nation address (See 'Free Range, 1988's 'In These Times', US '80 '90s' from 'Bend Sinister') is an annual event.
"It's about the spiv culture we've ended up with," Mark fumes. "Cos it's all take the fuckin' money and run at the moment isn't it, I mean. I'm no socialist but they're trying to apply an American system over here and they haven't got the fuckin guts to push it through."
His next series of observations encapsulates his broken barroom logic to perfection. "I mean, you can't even smoke in lifts anymore. And we're going to end up with a society where 30 per cent are unemployed. 30 per cent over 50, and there'll be a rapidly dwindling sector of the population supporting the rest."
Er, right. So if "Glam Racket" is to be believed, Mark has joined the evergrowing band of post-modern pessimists. Watching The Word and This Morning, seeing the DSS get ever-fuller, having his freedom to light up in public places curtailed, and witnessing people in Basildon troop out to vote for more redundancies and more repossessions, he's decided that this country is in terminal decline."Correct."
"Actually," he says, rearing up for a dual attack of contrariness and Europhobia, "it's really not that bad in Britain. From the last few European tours we've done, I reckon it's a lot worse over there. I mean, I always wish the bastards who talk about Europe would fuckin' wake up.
"Like when John Major's going on about how great Europe is I'd like to get him on our f--in tour bus and dump him in Valencia or somewhere and say 'go and have a walk round and have a fucking look, you know what I mean? He'd see worse litter than around here. What does he see? The inside of a Brussels Palace and chairs outside cafes.
"I think what he's doing is bordering on the traitorous," Mark continues spinning off down another unforeseen alley.
"He reminds me very much of Chamberlain in the 30's. Very similar. I mean, Europe is completely unstable, so what does he do? He cuts the army by half and closes the coal mines down... It's exactly what Chamberlain did. And when the Nazis went off we were fucking zapped. He's got the same shopkeeper attitude. Lions led by fucking donkeys. It's true.
"I mean, of all the times to lay the miners off. When we were on tour in Greece in November, we were driving up in the hills, and seeing jets bombing Yugoslavia. It's on our f--in' doorstep. And closing the mines at a time like that is like scuttling the f--in' ships. He should remember we're an island...'
Until that tunnel opens.
"Lions led by donkeys," he reckons. A country about to throw in its lot with a continent whose people seem far more preoccupied with duffing up their neighbours than promoting the cause of pan-European harmony. And to make things worse, Mark claims the UK's inhabitants are either willing proponents or miserable victims of the dewy-eyed nostalgia that is currently dripping out of every available TV screen.
Here, readers, we finally grasp the tenuous rationale behind Glam Racket -- a song that decries all manner of social and political diseases while putting them in the musical context of the current plague of early '70s revivalism.
Though Mark has plenty of time for Suede -- they sent tapes to him a couple of years back and he was extremely impressed -- in the more retrofied output of glam-merchants like Denim, he senses a hidden agenda.
This is his theory along with advertising execs, TV programmers and long-haired Americans, fly-by-nights like Lawrence are going to end up rehabilitating the long-haired cultural criminals who made his teenage life a misery.
"It's mostly happening because the people controlling the media are in their mid-'30s," he reckons. "That's why Levi's adverts have Steve Miller songs on them. No-one's grown up: it's just the same as America.
"I mean, when I was 13, the only concerts you could go to were Emerson Lake & Palmer or f--in' Yes. You'd turn on the radio and get Whispering Bob Harris. And that's part of what frightens me, 'cos now, I get back from the pub and switch on the radio and Bob Harris is back! I fought a revolution to get rid of people like him...
HA HA HA!
"...I did! I had ashtrays thrown at my head by longhairs. And now all these groups are playing Led Zeppelin tunes -- that's what groups like The Fall were formed to fight against."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But some of the necrophiliac shock-troops seem to hate all that as much as you do. They're pop fans. They want to rehabilitate Bell Records and spangly trousers and The Sweet. Lawrence, for example.
"But those people are fakes who weren't into it at the time," he rejoinders, somewhat unconvincingly. "They'd probably like to bring back Pink Floyd as well. I was really into Gary Glitter, and I used to get bad-mouthed for it. It was like 'You've got to be into David Bowie or Yes -- Gary Glitter's just tripe'. And I was going 'It's fuckin' great. It's avant-garde.'"
Hmmmmph. You'd better explain that.
"Well, two drummers and all that -- it was really percussive. It was the only decent thing around. And at the time Lawrence and that lot were probably listening to Pink Floyd and Joni fucking Mitchell."And now all that bollocks is coming back. I was talking to the guy who cuts me hair about the Orb, and I said, 'It just sounds like Steve Hillage to me', and he goes, 'Well, he plays for them'. I said, 'Whaaaaat! Steve Hillage is back! I've f---in' failed!"
IT''S been over a year since the NME last spoke to Mark E Smith -- and in addition to all the developments that have led him to spit into his pint thus far we've seen musical phenomena that cry out for a verdict from the pint-and-fags court of justice. Like (cough) grunge.
He pauses. "Well, I quite like Nuclear Assault. Most of the speedmetal stuff, really. And I like Sunshot, but they're not really grunge, are they?"
Er, no. They're a goth band who sound a bit like Curve.
"Actually, I think Nirvana are a load of wop; biggest heap of crap I've ever seen. They're just fuckin' college kids who are lucky enough to have the money to sit around all day wearing sweaty check shirts.
"What I really don't like about a lot of American groups is the fact that I've heard it done better before. I was really into Fear and Artless and some of those LA fast groups, but the problem is that it's been taken over by all these people with a Boston Art School mentality, and they're all just f--in' actors.
"Like that bird out of Belly," he smiles, nipping from nihilist noise to East Coast clever-pop with impressive speed. "She just totally imitates Brix. She's even got the haircut, the smile... it's just like the ex-wife used to have. She even stands the same way."
Oh dear. We're back in that occasionally entertaining conspiracy-theory universe in which an astounding number of bands sat at home studying Fall albums -- and before you could shout 'I Am Damo Suzuki' they'd risen to the top without so much as acknowledging their sources. Past interviews with Mark are littered with such stories, and they're usually extremely flimsy... But seeing as we've reached that point in the conversation, we may as well talk about Pavement, one group to have made Mark's artistic paranoia (remember "Notebooks Out Plagiarists", the legend printed on the sleeve of 'Shift-work'?) look slightly justified.
"It's just ridiculous; the bare-faced cheek of it, you know? It makes me laugh actually. I've only heard a couple of tracks but what they seem to be imitating is '82 and '83 stuff. They're trying to take off a sound that was done when the band were like 15 or 16 - they could hardly play. But Pavement can probably play Deep Purple numbers backwards, you know what I mean! They sound like they're being deliberately inept."
We do the "year in view" routine a bit more. We talk about Huggy Bear, and this unreconstructed man who calls women "love" says that, although people on telly yelling "Men are evil" is quite entertaining, today's youngsters don't really want to hear impassioned feminist rhetoric.
The chat touches on the demise of Factory; how Mark saw it coming a year ago, and was quite surprised at how sad he felt. And he gives a qualified posthumous salute to Happy Mondays, who allegedly spent two years in the front row of every Fall gig they could get to.
Minutes later, as lunchtime draws to a close and the businessmen surrounding us get their receipts and stumble back to the office, Mark tells me about his much publicised split with Phonogram, an event that had The Fall lumped in with the likes of Julian Cope and Pop Will Eat Itself as cult maestros slighted by clueless corporate idiots.
The motives behind Phonogram's fall-out with the band have been well-documented. In essence, the management reckon that The Fall are an inherently unprofitable group. They claim that Mark's elder statesman-type stature means they require big recording budgets, but that their marginal fan base can't take them into the black. Truth be told, they reckon no major label can afford The Fall for much longer than three years.
Mark listens intently to all this. And he's unimpressed. "Unprofitable. That's the story I was getting. Total fuckin' bullshit. We weren't selling enough records 'cos they were cost-cutting on promotion and things like that. It was all 'blame the worker', like it is in coal and soccer. The British disease.
"They were laying on this guilt trip, so I looked through the accounts -- and we weren't that far in debt, really. In a year's time we'd have broken even.
"We could never get in touch with those people either," he continues. "It was like. You get 86 per cent -- when do I see some work?" he half-yells.
"They were too busy remixing Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch. They were fucking twats. They deserve everything that they get. They're fucking gonna go down. All hippies, and hippies are more dangerous than people think."
After all the Phonogram palaver, The Fall eventually signed with major-funded cottage label Permanent, finished off the soon-come album (a warmer, cleaner record than the brilliantly scuzzy 'Code Selfish') and took it to the pressing plant, conveniently situated next to a pub in which Mark ended up standing next to the A&R man who'd been at the centre of the band's difficulties. His face screws up at the memory.
"I said, 'I'm disgusted with you', and he goes, 'Oh, were you ?' Fart. If I was 21, I'd have nutted him."
He downs the last of his fourth lager, and then this black-clad, strange-smelling fellow lopes off to have his photo taken.
That's the plan at any rate -- but he persuades Mancunian compadre Kevin Cummins to accompany him to the pub, where Mark sits and rants about scousers for four hours, just like the legions of hard-drinking, bigoted lunatics propping up bars all over the country.
But are their wayward observations littered with brilliantly acerbic insight! Do they drink up, go home and make records as arresting as 'Glam Racket'!
Quite. And that, if you remember, is why we'll reject allegations of insanity.
Hail Mark E Smith, great English eccentric.